Lydia Richard said she was angry and confused after receiving a letter from the state last week that appeared to require her to add her driver’s license photo to the EBT card she uses for food stamp benefits.
“The state’s electronic benefit transfer EBT card is now a photo card. Our records indicate that you do not have an EBT photo card,” reads a form letter sent to thousands of food stamp recipients and signed by Bethany Hamm, director of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Family Independence.
There is no photo requirement for EBT cards used for food stamp benefits in Maine.
But a Maine DHHS spokeswoman said the letter was not deceptive and that having more photos on EBT cards would help deter fraudulent use of the cards.
Richard, 52, of Milo, said she’s disabled because of mental illness, qualifies for Social Security disability, and doesn’t want a photo on her EBT card.
The letter does not explicitly say whether the program is mandatory or voluntary, but urges clients to sign a release allowing their driver’s license photo to be place on their EBT card.
Richard said she sometimes has family members use her EBT card – which works like a debit card and requires a PIN number to access money – to pick up groceries.
“Why should I have a photo on my EBT card? I don’t have a photo on my credit card,” Richard said.
The LePage administration has pushed for photo identification on EBT cards, saying it will reduce waste and fraud. About 102,000 Maine residents receive food stamps, and about 36,200 have photos on their EBT cards.
An additional 7,500 have signed releases to have photos placed on their cards, according to DHHS.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture criticized the state for not making it clear that the photo ID is voluntary, and threatened to cut an undetermined amount of federal money that funds administrative costs for the program.
The food stamp program – officially called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – is funded mostly with federal dollars, but the state and federal government share administrative costs.
A USDA official, who provided a statement to the Press Herald on the condition that he not be identified, said this week that photos on EBT cards are counterproductive, and that the federal agency that oversees the program will look into Maine’s communications with food stamp recipients.
“Despite its well-intended goals, photos on SNAP EBT cards simply create confusion among clients and in fact, may create barriers to access.
Federal law requires anyone in a client’s household and any authorized representative be allowed to use the SNAP EBT card, regardless of whether or not they are pictured.
Therefore, the picture on the card cannot be used as a means to determine who can use the card,” according to the statement.
The statement said the USDA “is continuing to monitor Maine’s implementation of photo EBT to ensure that their photo requirement complies with applicable federal laws and regulations.”
States are permitted to pass laws requiring photographs on EBT cards.
Massachusetts and Missouri require the photos, and several other states are considering it. Any requirement for photos on the cards would have to be approved by the state’s Legislature.
Samantha Edwards, DHHS spokeswoman, said in an email response to questions from the Press Herald that the department’s letter does not order food stamp recipients to sign the form.
“The letter makes no mention that this is a requirement or a mandatory program,” Edwards wrote.
“This letter allows recipients to receive a new photo card without coming into the office, if they choose to have one. Client benefits are not impacted if they choose not to send back the signed letter.”
Edwards also said that if food stamp recipients call the number on the letter, an automated message makes it clear the photos are voluntary.
“By placing photos on EBT cards, it deters fraud, protects legitimate users of the benefits, and provides taxpayers a peace of mind that their tax dollars are not being wasted,” Edwards wrote.
“This is part of the bigger picture of reforming the state of Maine’s welfare system and cutting down on fraud.”
Richard said she was offended that the letter says some stolen EBT cards were found during drug busts.
“There is real evidence of an EBT trafficking problem here in Maine,” the letter says.
But Richard said she believes the implication is that many food stamp recipients are drug traffickers.
Jack Comart, attorney for Maine Equal Justice Partners, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of low-income Mainers, said the letter was extremely misleading and made the photo seem mandatory.
He said requiring photo IDs discourages the elderly and disabled from using the program.
Comart said these groups are most likely to need someone else to pick up their groceries, and the photo on the card discourages them from having others use it at the store.
“It causes unnecessary confusion and it’s a waste of resources,” Comart said. “It’s hurting the people who need it most.”
A 2015 study by the Urban Institute public policy think tank concludes that photographs on EBT cards do not help reduce fraud.
“What emerges from this review is the absence of a compelling logic model to suggest that photo EBT cards might meaningfully reduce card trafficking, given that such trafficking involves the complicity of individuals and retailers for whom a photo on the card will not act as a deterrent,” was among the study’s findings.
The study also concludes that the use of PIN numbers and phasing out the use of paper food stamps has reduced fraud from a rate of 3.8 percent of all food stamp money spent in 1993 to 1.3 percent in 2011.